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Nov 16

Back-to-back bad hearings for Dominion this week

Dominion’s team presents in front of an audience wearing medical masks at Wednesday’s PSC hearing in Baltimore.

The last two days saw two hearings about different Dominion Energy gas infrastructure projects in Southern Maryland. Tuesday night, there was a zoning permit for a compressor station Dominion wants to build near Accokeek, and Wednesday, there was a hearing to change Dominion’s largest state-level permit for its export terminal being built at Cove Point in a way that would allow more pollution into the surrounding community.

Dominion representatives left both hearings with grumpy faces.

The Tuesday night hearing was in front of the Charles County Appeals Board, which is deciding whether to issue the special exemption Dominion needs to build a compressor station in an area otherwise set aside for conservation near Accokeek, right near the line between Charles and Prince George’s Counties. This was the fourth of five hearings on the matter, and this one was devoted entirely to hearing public comment.

Dominion and the unions it typically works with kept up their practice of requiring union members to come from all over the area to create an image of public support for Dominion’s side. This is often done by fining the workers if they don’t show up.

Perhaps two hundred workers crowded the parking lot outside the hearing and eventually the hearing room. Most were dressed in their work gear, many having recently gotten off a shift at the export terminal in Cove Point.

A string of about 10 pro-Dominion speakers opened up the public testimony. The combination of every speaker at first speaking in favor of the proposed compressor station (many saying odd things like it would cut down on crime and homelessness — in a forested area) with the overwhelming numbers of workers brought in to create a pro-Dominion atmosphere felt disheartening.

About 30 minutes into testimony, the Appeals Board ordered a short recess, and everything changed.

Nearly all of the workers left, leaving behind a handful of Dominion representatives, many people who would be impacted by this compressor station, and a lot of people who opposed the compressor station and were there because they cared, not for financial reasons (unlike Dominion’s “supporters”). Very quickly, the speakers pivoted, arguing against this zoning exemption — and it remained that way the rest of the night.

The change was amazing, going from being suffocatingly pro-Dominion for the first short while to inescapably anti-Dominion for the rest of the hearing.

As is typical, if the people holding the hearing really listen to the public testimony and weigh it in their decisions, it seems hard to believe they could come to any conclusion other than to deny Dominion the zoning it needs. People had emotional appeals about why they live in that area, how this would impact their lives, how this would impact the long-standing and thorough conservation plans for the area, how this would affect visitors to George Washington’s Mount Vernon home just across the Potomac River, how this would contradict many aspects of the Charles County Comprehensive Plan, how a compressor station in this location would flood consistently, etc. People also noted how representatives of one of the fire departments that would respond to an emergency here 1) don’t have access to the water they need to fight fires, leading buildings that catch fire to typically burn all the way down in this area, and 2) didn’t even bother to show up at the previous hearing despite being subpoenaed. In fact, the very next morning, a house in the area around where Dominion wants to build this compressor station went up in flames, killing a resident and his dog. The fire department responded, but it wasn’t able to stop the fire.

As people left the hearing, Dominion was spotted huddled with its lawyer, looking grim and seemingly trying to figure out how to turn this around. Tuesday night did not go Dominion’s way.

On Wednesday morning, a couple dozen people headed to the Public Service Commission (PSC) building in Baltimore to watch presentations about Dominion’s application to change its PSC permit for the fracked gas export terminal being built at Cove Point. PSC staff, state regulators, Dominion and AMP Creeks Council were scheduled to present, and the PSC could make a decision on the permit immediately after.

A letter had previously been sent to the PSC, asking PSC commissioner Tony O’Donnell to recuse himself from these proceedings. O’Donnell had been a state delegate representing the Cove Point area in southern Calvert County before being named to the PSC last year. As a delegate, O’Donnell consistently made pro-Dominion statements and was known for being incredibly dismissive toward constituents voicing concerns about Dominion. He also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Dominion.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, O’Donnell responded in an official notice saying he declined to recuse himself, but he would refrain from voting on the issue. On Wednesday, O’Donnell didn’t even show up.

The PSC staff began with its recommendations, basically endorsing most of what Dominion wanted with the exception of capping overall emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the entire export terminal facility at the numeric limit of 50.9 tons per year. This included the larger number of 20.1 tons per year of VOCs Dominion was estimating it would emit through the additional 144,700 VOC-leaking components Dominion referenced in this application. Under its current permit, Dominion is only allowed to emit 2.53 of fugitive VOC emissions from these components.

Next up was testimony from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Power Plant Research Program and the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Air and Radiation Administration (MDE-ARA). William Paul, from the MDE-ARA’s Air Quality Permits Program did most of the talking for the state agencies. He didn’t seem to know many of the details of what was being discussed and seemed to repeat Dominion talking points. Paul lacked any sort of critical lens for Dominion and, in questioning from the commissioners, he offered wild excuses for the energy company. A metaphor he kept using was that the state was like a baby learning to crawl; this was a learning experience — even though it was later pointed out that there are very established regulations and practices addressing all of this in other states. The disappointing performance from MDE echoed MDE’s presentation earlier this year in Calvert County over Dominion’s application to discharge an average of 45,000 gallons a day into the wetlands around Cove Point. It was obvious MDE knew little information about the permits being discussed and was happy to defer to Dominion.

AMP Creeks Council presented last, largely taking the time to respond to inaccuracies and problematic points made by Dominion and the state agencies. AMP Creeks brought in industry consultant Bill Powers to be an expert witness on how regulations should work in regard to facilities like the one under construction at Cove Point. Powers was also an expert witness in the original PSC proceedings. Powers and AMP Creeks revealed how the main reason Dominion submitted this application for this permit change in the first place was because Dominion saw a fracked gas export terminal in Louisiana had its numeric limits on fugitive VOC emissions removed — and it wanted the same thing. This confirms the concern about this decision setting a precedent for other gas infrastructure projects.

The PSC commissioners seemed irked that Dominion was withholding information about alternatives to reducing VOC emissions onsite and also that Dominion had known about this issue for around a year, but 1) denied that fact, even though Dominion’s own documents show it to be true, and 2) waited until construction was nearly complete to start this process to change the permit.

There was also conflicting information about how much Dominion needed this change to be approved and by when. Dominion has been pushing to rush this process since it started, and Dominion Cove Point’s Director of Community Relations Karl Neddenien has repeatedly told the media and the public that the facility can’t operate without the PSC’s approval of this application. However, Dominion Cove Point’s head Mike Frederick and chief engineer Bob McKinley told the PSC in no uncertain terms that Dominion did not need this application to be approved before starting the operation of the export terminal. One PSC commissioner, in particular, seemed frustrated that this was all being hurried last-minute for something Dominion has known about for a while and is now saying it doesn’t even actually need any time soon.

The PSC also seemed concerned about how much (or little) Dominion was actually notifying the public about these processes. Frederick talked about a list of “interested people” Dominion had and used for such notifications, and also how Dominion posted some information on its website. After it was later pointed out by a Lusby resident that Dominion’s list of “interested people” was actually specifically a list of Dominion supporters, Frederick was asked to explain. Instead, he ignored the question and mentioned again how Dominion posted notices on its website.

After a short recess, the PSC allowed public testimony from anyone who hadn’t spoken at either of the public hearings held in October in Lusby. Around six people spoke, all against the approval of Dominion’s application and even urging the PSC to revoke Dominion’s existing permit due to numerous inaccuracies and Dominion’s inability to stay within the bounds of the existing permit.

After hearing from the public, the PSC adjourned without making a decision or even setting a timeline.

We Are Cove Point came to this hearing bracing for yet another instance of regulators caving into industry, giving Dominion what it wanted and doing so on Dominion’s timetable, which is approving this application as soon as possible. It was heartening to see many pointed questions come from the commissioners, displaying their suspicions that they’re not getting straight answers from Dominion and even from state agencies.

Many people in the audience wore medical masks with messages on them to illustrate the gravity of this decision on the community around Cove Point. We wore anti-Dominion stickers, wanting to make it as clear as possible that we were not neutral observers to these proceedings. At the most egregious lies or excuses by Dominion or Paul from MDE-ARA, many of us made noises to make it known that the truth was not being said. Overall, this hearing had a very different feel to it than it would have had if we had not been there, and everyone in the room couldn’t help but notice it.

For now, for the PSC’s decision, we’re keeping our ears open and crossing our fingers that the PSC will prioritize the health and well-being of impacted people over the whims of a $40 billion corporation from out of state. Stay tuned to WACP’s website and Facebook page for updates on this — and sign up to get our emails if you don’t already on the right side of the front page of WeAreCovePoint.org.

For the zoning decision for the compressor station Dominion wants to build near Accokeek, there will be a final hearing at 7 p.m. on December 12. It will be at the Charles County Government Building, 200 Baltimore St., La Plata, Maryland. AMP Creeks Council will finish its presentation against the zoning exemption, Dominion will have a chance for rebuttal, and the appeals board members are expected to deliberate in front of the audience and come to a decision that night. Please come to the hearing to show your support for rejecting this compressor station! The appeals board seems to be responding to what it sees from the audience. There is a Facebook event page at https://www.facebook.com/events/158850028192315/ with more information.

Thanks to everybody who came out to each of these hearings! It’s clear that the public has to hold companies like Dominion accountable because our state regulators and politicians refuse to. Let’s get these permits denied and continue to do all we can to help those impacted by these industries!